Is Caffeine Good for My Workouts?

A Closer Look at Performance-Boosting Effects

Woman drinking coffee outside
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Coffee is a very popular drink among athletes. Some of the reason for this is cultural—the get-together after training, for example. (Note the cyclists in full gear populating some coffee shops on a weekend morning after a long ride.)

Apart from the fact that coffee—joe, caffeine, java, mud, etc.—is obviously a popular drink, tastes good, and seems to contribute to a feeling of well-being and energy for many people, the health and performance benefits of coffee drinking may be due to the stimulant caffeine and other naturally occurring plant constituents.

Caffeine as a Performance Supplement

Caffeine is one of the sports performance supplements recognized as safe and effective at the recommended doses. Caffeine is not banned or listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency for sport. The reasons caffeine helps is not altogether clear, but it may have to do with delaying neural/brain fatigue—that is, you don't feel fatigue or pain as early as you would without the caffeine dose. Also, caffeine may provide direct muscle performance effects. The early theory that caffeine enhances fat burning seems to have been discounted as a performance mechanism in athletes. Caffeine does seem to boost performance in the longer endurance events like marathons and triathlons but has limited benefit in competition in power sports like sprints, or even bodybuilding and weight lifting. However, caffeine may still provide benefit for athletes in these power sports by allowing them to train harder.

Caffeine's ability to reduce the "rate of perceived exertion" (RPE) associated with pain and discomfort is likely to enhance high-volume training ability.

In addition, coffee/caffeine may give some trainers and competitors a feeling of well-being and power—after all, it is an effective brain and adrenal stimulant, although an effect may be more psychological than physiological, and the line between the two can be blurred.

Health Effects of Coffee

In a range of human health studies, coffee and caffeine have been associated with possible prevention of various diseases, with few adverse effects in healthy people up to 3-4 cups a day, averaging around 400 milligrams of caffeine. (In pregnancy, perhaps half this to reflect some uncertainty about caffeine and miscarriage)

Possible Health Benefits of Coffee:

  • lowers risk of type 2 diabetes
  • protects against liver disease
  • protects against Parkinson's disease
  • reduces risk of endometrial cancer
  • protects against Alzheimer's disease

Most of these benefits have surfaced in prospective human studies and cannot be regarded as certain because of factors that may not have been accounted for in this type of study.

The role of caffeine and coffee in heart disease remains somewhat controversial but less so than in earlier decades, with moderate to high consumption showing no increased risk of heart disease in prospective studies of large populations.

Sources:

Green JM, Wickwire PJ, McLester JR, et al. Effects of caffeine on repetitions to failure and ratings of perceived exertion during resistance training. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2007; Sep;2(3):250-9. 

Higdon JV, Frei B. Coffee and health: a review of recent human research. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2006;46(2):101-23. 

Lopez-Garcia E, van Dam RM, Willett WC, et al. Coffee consumption and coronary heart disease in men and women: a prospective cohort study. Circulation. 2006; 2;113(17):2045-53.  

Tarnopolsky MA. Caffeine and creatine use in sport. Ann Nutr Metab. 2010;57 Suppl 2:1-8. 

Woolf K, Bidwell WK, Carlson AG. The effect of caffeine as an ergogenic aid in anaerobic exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008;18(4):412-29.

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